Written by
Charlotte Ricca-Smith

Published
20 Apr 2015

Online learning: a world of opportunities

20 Apr 2015 • by Charlotte Ricca-Smith

For the millennial generation online learning is as natural as breathing, but for those born BI (Before Internet) it can be a daunting prospect.

While studying alone, without the encouragement and advice of a teacher, does require a certain degree of self-motivation, there are many benefits to be had from learning from the comfort of your own home.

The flexibility means you can fit your course around your work, home and family. So online courses are ideal for working parents, or those with young children.

Eleanor Green from Surrey had a keen interest in gardening, but work and then family commitments meant she never had the time to turn her hobby into a career.

"I was on maternity leave and felt like I needed something else in my life to keep my brain occupied," says Eleanor.  "A friend suggested an online course in horticulture."

"At first I was unsure, as I didn't know if I had the time or the energy to commit to something like that. I signed up to a four-week course to begin with, which I could fit it around my baby's naps during the day and when she's gone to bed." 

"I;ve really enjoyed it and am now planning on taking a diploma. As well as giving me another focus, I now feel like I have more options when I go back to work."

Distance learning is also ideal for those unable to leave the home due to illness, age or disability. According to the Open University (OU), online learning means there are increasing opportunities for disabled students to participate in post-16 education.

The OU has over 120 qualifications for you to choose from, from short courses to a range of undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. All of which can boost your employability or help you move up the ladder.

It isn't just the qualifications that will get your foot in the door, taking the initiative to study by yourself shows potential employers your drive and determination.

"It absolutely has changed my life," says OU graduate Kerry Pace. "Taking the degree opened up the gates to me getting a university job. The reason I got the job was because I was an OU graduate. Because I could manage, I could organise, I could do things to do deadlines, I could work independently and be an autonomous learner. That's what they were looking for."

All learning material will be provided online, but you aren't simply left to get on with it. Most online courses will provide an 'e-tutor' who you can contact via email or online forums. You might think it's a bit impersonal not dealing with your tutor face-to-face, but students of online learning often receive more individual support than those in a large classroom.

According to ElearnUK there is always someone on hand to answer questions or offer support, be that a personal tutor assigned to you or one of their administrators, who are just a phone call or email away.

You can also use forums to chat to other people on the course, from all around the world. Sign up to a course at the OU and you'll have the support of its 250,000-strong student body via its online communities.

Distance learning isn't just for those looking to gain official qualifications or boosting their career. It can also be a way to improve your personal life or just have some fun away from work and the family.

Julie Bryant signed up for a free online course in equine nutrition at the University of Edinburgh. Lectures for the five-week course are presented online, which the students can watch at any time.

"I don't have any grand ambitions about becoming an equine nutritionist, but I've had horses all my life and have always been interested in their health and diet," says Julie. "The course was really interesting and has made me a far more informed and educated horse owner."

The University of Edinburgh was the first in the UK to join the Coursera consortium, which is an organisation set up by Stanford University to provide free degree-level education via the internet. There are currently 1,026 courses, provided by 117 organisations around the world.

If you're concerned you don't have the necessary qualifications or skills to sign up to a course - don't be. For many courses you don't need any previous qualifications.

"We believe it's the qualifications that you leave with not what you enter with that count," says Ben Clifton at the OU.